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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Original

Creating characters in fiction is an interesting exercise, but it is critical for your story’s success. Depending on your process, developing a character profile can take the length of the book, or a few concentrated days of hard work. Some people know minimal detail when they start writing and learn their quirks and back history along the way; others define their character first, down to knowing which leg hooks into their underwear first and where they experienced their first kiss.

So far, my stories all start as dreams, with the leading characters all beginning their life as my favourite actors. Blame it on my love of cinema. For instance, the heroine in my first romance began life looking remarkably like Natalie Portman. (I’ve always loved Natalie). She has a quality to her that literally knocked me over the first time I watched her perform and still does to this day. Over the process of writing the first draft, my character came alive, revealing her true personality, but retained Ms Portman’s cheeky smile.

But, of course, there is more than window dressing involved to create an original. I know Samantha Grace, fellow blogger and resident funny girl, interviews her ladies and gents prior to writing. She knows quite a lot before the story begins whereas I tend to dump my characters in a situation and let them choose which way they will react.

Multidimensional characters drive the story forward. The past experiences a writer gives them determine how they react to situations. And as long as they behave in accordance to their established personality a reader will follow along. Give a shy girl a public speaking gig and she is not going to bounce up on stage, speak without breaking a sweat and be believable. Not without some serious coaching and brain surgery to turn off her panic.

Another point to decide on is the character’s ages. Trends in romances have varied over the years. At one point, it was very hard to find a romance where the heroine was above twenty. Lately, there has been a trend to show an older female finding love. I do love those stories because sometimes I don’t really want the younger girls to get all the dishy men to themselves.

I placed my first heroine’s age above 21 so I did not have to deal with parental consent issues and my third heroine below consent because that was part of her conflict. If you write a modern romance, this isn’t too much of a problem for you. But if you write romance in another era, and particularly another country, you want to arm yourself with some basic legal knowledge particularly about marriage issues and inheritance before you pin down their ages.

Overall, the best way to write well-rounded characters is to develop a genuine interest in other people. Listen to generations older and younger than yourself, their point of view will be considerably different and spark ideas for great characters, and possibly new stories. Writing can be a very solitary career, but a story is nothing without great characters and believable plot.

Whatever challenges you throw in their path, how characters react at the moments of conflict affects their appeal. Making their life perfect, and I did that on my very first story, will not give readers a reason to like them. Readers of romance expect just that: a romance between two different fully-developed people: people that have issues, flaws and believable personalities.

Do you have a method for discovering your characters back story? Do you have a sure-fire way to record it? I would love to hear about your process.


  1. Great blog, Heather. I love to hear what process writers use to come up with their characters. Mine is odd because I tend to start by imagining a scene from the middle of the book, something strange and unexpected. Then I work backwards, asking myself what kind of person would do this weird thing and what has to happen to get her to that point.

  2. I love this blog post, Heather. And Gail, that is a fascinating method! Not one I'd ever think of. In fact, I'm not sure it would work for me.

    When I'm creating characters, I start with a fill-in-the-blanks type of form. It begins with the basics, like their name and age, etc., and then moves me through a lot of deeper issues that helps me delve into their back stories. I do my hero and heroine side-by-side, so that I can layer into their personalities different aspects that will match well, and also things that should create inherent conflict.

    Once I've finished with that, I tend to do an interview with them. The questions for the interview vary. I tend to ask questions very specific to that character. These answers tend to help me get a good grasp on the character's voice before I ever write a word of the manuscript.

    Of course, it never fails that more aspects of their personality and back story will come up as I write. So, I make note of those things as I go, and then try to make it all make sense in the editing phase.

  3. I recently took a class on motivation by Laurie Schnelby, who writes as Laurie Campbell. I've taken three classes from her, and I have gathered quite a few useful tools. One thing I'm doing at the moment is figuring out what is at the core driving my character. Once I know that, I ask myself what could have happened in this person's past to form them in this way. Later, I ask how would a person who is driven by the need to control their environment, for example, react in this situation. I also like to give my characters vulnerabilities and/or flaws that make whatever they are facing a real challenge. Even Superman had Kryptonite and Lois Lane as weaknesses, and that is what made him relatable.

  4. Heather, great post!

    I find Samantha's comment about sussing out the core of your characters interesting.

    I normally have an outline of the plot (I love historical civil war settings) and how the characters are involved there. I seem to favour the strong-minded MMC who has a goal within that conflict but who has to learn some hard truths along the way. Usually the FMC sets him on the straight and narrow! :D

    I've tried interviews but it didn't work for me. They just didn't want to answer my questions!
    So I now let them develop their characteristics as I write. Take a few basic requirements as starting points, and move on from there. Works so far for me.

  5. Great post!

    I do enjoy reading how other writers get to know their characters. For me personally, the method is the same but the level of detail I know up front varies with each book--even though it may be similar from story to story.

    My favorite method (but not always the one that occurs) is not knowing anything but the bare minimum and watching the character unfold while writing. For me, that sort of unfolding... it's like magic. The magic of story telling.


  6. Gail - LOL Regardless of how your characters come to life you definately create originals! :)

    Samantha - thanks for recommending a great teacher. I think I might check out Laurie Schnelby soon.

    Steph - good to see someone else has interview shy characters.

    Elijana - my process for writing keeps changing the longer I'm at it. I did once do checklist style, but then stopped referring back to it or updating. I like organisation but seem to avoid anything that looks like a set of procedures. Blame it on my last career. Financial Planning is all about procedures and checklists LOL.

  7. Hi Heather, thought I'd drop in. Interesting topic.

    For me it's a case of voice. Literally as in the sound of their voice. When I can 'hear' my characters speaking to me I know I know them. I've been known to use actors/radio/media (many ways of finding voices)as a basis sometimes if they are being tricky to nail down (though it's more when trying to describe them to someone else in the real world).

    The other thing that is important for me is to name them right. If they don't reveal their names to me (before/during or after a couple of naming books I have) I threaten the girls with Bertha & the boys with Fritz until they fess up.

    We all know I'm odd *lol*.

  8. I have a flow chart and note cards. Some of them are sketched out first, most of the personality traits and other characters come as I write.

    I love this blog. Thank you ladies for taking the time to write it!

  9. Catherine - you are way more detailed than I would ever want to be. :)

    Nicky - I'm so glad you hear voices but you're threatening them with boring names now? LMAO

    Misti - Thanks for dropping by and so happy you like our blog. Come back anytime - you're always welcome.

  10. I've a method, but I would never proclaim it to be surefire. When I start a story I know the very minimum. Sometimes I only know the opening scene. In fact, two of my stories were born this way. As crazy as it sounds, my characters tell me who they are and what they would say as I write. Having said that, I am the editing Queen. Maybe I wouldn't be if I did more planning!

  11. I come up with my main characters. And I have to have a name before I do anything. To me, a name means so much about the character. Then I work on their back story. What decisions or life events have shaped the person they are when the story begins?

    I generally have a vague idea what the main conflict in the story will be and that's it.

    I put the person I created in whatever situation opens the book and then the characters take over.

    Great post, Heather.

  12. Hi Heather....great blog..

    Although the synopsis is the first thing i write down when i get a story idea, my main characters have usually appeared together first in a particular scene...confused? ok. With my new book, the orginal scene i had (when formulating the story)was the hero and heroine in a tavern - she was drunk...it was a great scene but didn't fit in til halfway into the book. But, i knew from that scene that my characters had a great chemistry together, which strangely enough made is easier for me to go back and start at the beginning of the book.
    When i try to write from chap 1, i find my characters a bit stiff and awkward (as i know some writers do)...their personalities becoming much more fluid by, say, chap 3 or 4. I see this in some TV shows too...in the first episode or two, everyone seems rehearsed, by by the end of the season, they all interact as though they'd known each other all their lives.
    So, in the end, to me it doesn't matter how many great details i give my characters, if the chemistry isn't there...its a re-do.

    : )


  13. Heather,
    Thanks for sharing your insights on creating characters,
    For historical characters I can't survive without a long list of their titles, estates, house names etc but to really get them in my head, I like them to have a good argument. Brings out the best and the worst in a heroine and hero,

  14. Great post, Heather.
    I have to say in my first ms, I made up my characters backstory as I went. And when I fell into a situation where I found myself saying, 'I need a problem here' I'd make one up. Eventually my characters had a full history, which caused arguments and conflict.
    I have found as my writing progressed since that first ms, I do put a little more thought into my characters before I start writing. But I'm still determined to sit on the panser side of the fence.

  15. Julie - are you gunning for a new title?

    Lydia - names are usually part of my research but I don't think it comes first. Might try that one day!

    Erin - So you built a plot around an idea for a scene that doesn't feature until later in the book? Now that's an interesting way to write and very similar to Gail Zerrade's style too. You ladies should chat! LOL

    Suzi - if we get started on discussing research resources for historical we could probably fill up a years worth of blogs. I think that might be my next topic.

    Tam - we seem to be at the same point in our writing growth :o)

    Thanks for your interesting comments.

  16. Great post, Heather! Sorry I'm late chiming in!

    I'm not that great at mapping out my characters. I don't spend a lot of time getting to know them before I start writing. I assume they'll reveal themselves to me throughout the story, which is what makes writing fun for me. I do, however, decide on the aesthetics: hair, eyes, shape, etc...as well as family members, names/titles and where they live.

  17. As you can see I'm late as usual. Great blog Heather, the two stories I'm writing now are the first ones I've written doing character charts first, and they are very basic charts.

    I normally don't do character charts until I'm into the third or fourth chapter. Mostly because I look at my characters like meeting a new friend, I like to learn about them as I write, the more I write the more detail goes onto the chart. It works for me, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

  18. Hi Heather

    Very interesting post. Character is such and important thing to get right.

    My process is that I have an overview of the story, with a theme and then I do the GMC for both my hero and heroine. I find this usually helps with their background too as it usually brings up all those questions why. Then I start to write and usually, for me, the characters work themselves out.


  19. Hi Heather, love all the discussion around character development. Like Catherine, I do a bit of an interview style development and find its really important for me to know their family. Because their family, for me, tells me who they are and how they came to be that way so I do a bit of detail on Mum, Dad, siblings etc. and work up to them as an adult after understanding their childhood. (background in psychology..I know..yawn..) I like to also decide which basic archetype they are and then layer them from there as well. And after all that, they take over from me and do what they want after about 4th chapter :-)).
    Jo (Duncan)